Given that a Google search of “clean food” delivers nearly 800,000 links to gurus of clean eating, dozens of magazine articles, and countless lists of dirty vs. clean foods, it would be easy to dismiss the idea of clean food as another fad.
But at its foundation, the current notion of clean food, as expressed, for example, in the mantra of Slow Food, “Food that is Good, Clean and Fair for all people” is the opposite of a fad. It is an imperative. Why? Because over the last 60 years or so American farmers have applied industrial methods to the production of meats, poultry, dairy, fruits, and vegetables designed to optimize yield over flavor and nutrition. The result is raw foods laced with antibiotics, hormone, and pesticide residues. Even more dangerous, as Americans leave food preparation to others, food manufacturing businesses have added their own recipes of additives, food colorings, trans fats, sugars, and salt to these compromised raw ingredients.
In his New York Times Magazine article, “This Steer’s Life,” Michael Pollan helped to explain why beef, once a healthy source of protein with “good cholesterol,” is now a potential source of hormone and antibiotic residues along with high levels of “bad cholesterol.” Raising steer on pasture takes a lot of land and 24 to 36 months to reach slaughter weight. Raising them in the confinement of feedlots, where they are fed an omega-6 rich diet of corn, protein, and antibiotics, gets the job done in 14 to 18 months. Antibiotics not only prevent disease among the closely confined animals, but stimulate growth. And some scientists are now wondering whether antibiotic residues may be promoting growth in humans as an unintended consequence.
Hogs and chickens face the same quick production times given a similar regimen of confinement and diet. Likewise, farmraised salmon are now being forced to adjust to a similar diet of corn and antibiotics (wild salmon are carnivores) to meet the dramatic increase in demand for fish protein.
A comprehensive comparison of wild-caught versus farmed salmon published in Science revealed significantly lower amounts of vitamins E and D in the farmed fish, but more than five times the amount of PCBs (cancer-causing synthetic chemicals) in the farmed fish due to the feed.
If the challenge for the home cook to prepare clean food seems daunting, the reality for most Americans who do little home cooking is that they have exchanged convenience in the form of packaged, processed, drive-thru food for nutrition. This means that leaving the cooking to others has the double problem of poor quality raw ingredients combined with additives such as MSG (which appears under many names and can be identified as “natural”) food dyes, trans fats, added sugars, and artificial sweeteners. What is an eater to do?
First, get educated on the merits of pastured or grass-fed livestock. This applies not only to meats and poultry, but also to eggs and dairy products, especially milk. Is grass-fed better than organic? For these products, the answer is yes, absolutely, because even though the USDA organic standard requires some pasture/ grass, it also allows organic corn, confinement, and so-called natural flavorings. If part of your home cooking regimen includes packaged foods, then consider the ease of making similar dishes from scratch. For example, instead of pre-packaged macaroni and cheese, shred your own favorite real cheese into a mixture of flour and butter that you melt on the stove, add milk and pour the mixture over cooked macaroni. In 20 minutes you have a tasty, nutritious side without the added ingredients of “sodium tripolyphosphate, cellulose gel, cellulose gum, citric acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, and cheese culture.”
Whether you eat out or love to cook, you may want to evaluate the nutritional quality of the foods you are eating and explore “going clean.” There are many resources to help, and the transition need not be dramatic. Try a once-a-week home-cooked meal with some friends and some simple fresh ingredients. You will be amazed how fun, delicious, and inexpensive going clean can be. It won’t take long for your palette to adjust to lower salt, less grease and sugar, and fewer chemicals. There are countless lists of bad additives, residues, and flavorings available online, but here are three sources I feel very confident about.